The Power
Te/The Science of the Essence

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Te (day)

If you consider a dog... The indefinable essence of the dog is what we refer to as 'the Tao'. The characteristics of the dogs nature are 'te'. They are considered to be the dogs virtue.
They are the substance of the dog. What makes a dog a dog and not a cat.


The virtues of a dog are what makes a dog a dog, and should not be confused with temperament or personality. A dog is seen as being powerful because its behaviour is consistent with being a dog.
Being what you are is the source of strength. If a dog behaved like a cat, it would reflect an inner confusion and lead to problems.


Another way of understanding virtue is 'conduct'. It may be seen as what a person is required to do in order to be in accord with the Tao, and with the innate 'humanness' of our species.
Animals are naturally in accord with their own nature, whereas humans are tainted by thought, and by reasoning. Humans must unlearn.
Only by shedding what you think is right and wrong can you begin to develop a harmonious relationship with existence.


Zen originated in China (Chan Buddhism) and flourished in Japan. With it came the appreciation of virtue. The skill of the Japanese made virtue an art form.
From tea ceremony to the costumes of samurai, the understanding of virtue can be seen. Some Zen people seek out rocks that look more like a rock than other rocks...
They want nothing contrived or manmade; a natural rock that demonstrates the virtue of being a rock. The rock must be mossy and rock-like.
This appreciation cannot be accomplished through thought or contrivance; it requires a state of mind that is not measuring, comparing or calculating.


The appreciation of virtue has long been applied to people. Dance and fashion make use of virtue constantly. The femaleness of women can be accentuated by costume and poise.
A flamenco dancer represents femininity, passion, elegance and strength. There is nothing masculine about the expression, body language, voice and mannerisms.
By expressing the characteristics of woman-ness, the dancer is true to her nature.


Self-consciousness prevents people from acting in accord with their own nature, and virtue is lost. Consider the flamenco dancer example? There must be a total immersion in the event itself.
The divide between the dance and the dancer must cease to exist; they must become one: a joining of femaleness and physical expression.
It is the dancers femininity and passion that makes the flamenco the flamenco.


In Taoism, men and women are seen as uniquely different. The yin/yang symbol represents the balancing of these differences; the perfect harmony of opposites.
Women are yin and men are yang; each has attributes unique and specific to their own sex.
These were never intended to be clichés or cultural gender stereotypes; they arose through observation rather than thought. Yin and yang are equal, yet different to one another.


The power, the virtue of the female is found in being a woman; rather than emulating the characteristics of a man. Hence, a woman is balanced by being womanly.
Masculinity of manner or dress is seen as discordant with the essence of a woman. The same principle applies to men.
You cannot be other than what you are, and any attempt to change your innate qualities is considered futile. Taoism sees strength in being true to what you are, in following your own nature.

Wu wei

Te is part of wu wei; going with the flow. Wu wei explores how power can be gained by keeping to the grain rather than going against it.
When travelling in water, it is simpler to be carried along than to fight the current.
A bird uses the currents in the air. A sea creature rides the currents of the ocean.
By according themselves with what is happening they move more quickly and easily. Not using te is akin to swimming against the current. It is tiring and energetically uneconomical.
The wise person does not force anything, they borrow strength  from the event and move with ease.


In Taoism, people seek to take this one step further by asking what they can do to capitalise upon the virtue. What can they do to improve their harmony with the flow?
In water, it might mean using a sail. With people, it could be attire or a consideration of posture and speech. The art of feng shui specialises in this skill

Virtue/power is not an active process that imposes but a passive one that permits.

(Ray Grigg)


Power to use

Te is a power that you can use but cannot keep. It is not something that adds to you. It is not like body building where lifting weights will lead to larger muscles.
Te works in a very different way. By letting things go their natural way, we can use power. But we do not have/own the power.


Consider: a person swings a punch at you and you block it. The incoming kinetic energy is lost and the impact is jarring. Having blocked, either person is now free to make the next move.


By contrast, if you move out of the way of the punch, either by stepping or within your stance, the kinetic force is not impeded.
If you make sympathetic contact, softly meeting the incoming force and gently re-direct it - along the path it is already taking - there is no block, no stopping, no jarring.
You can in fact neutralise the punch with no more effort than it takes to press a key on a keyboard.


To neutralise the punch you employed yielding and 4 ounces of pressure. But you personally have demonstrated no power. You have used the physics of the situation to your advantage.
Hence, you have not built/developed/accomplished anything - you have simply accorded yourself appropriately with what was happening. This is 'te'.

Using strength

This Zen story perfectly expresses te:

Kung Yi-tsu was famous for his strength.
King Hsuan of Chou went to call on him with full ceremony,
but when he got there, he found that Kung was a weakling.
The king asked, "How strong are you?"
Kung replied, "I can break the waist of a spring insect,
I can bear the wing of an autumn cicada."
The king flushed and said,
"I'm strong enough to tear apart rhinoceros hide and drag nine oxen by the tail
- yet I still lament my weakness.
How can it be that you are so famous for strength?"
Kung replied, "My fame is not for having such strength,
it is for being able to use such strength."

(Zen story/David Schiller)

There is a significant difference between the two qualities he mentions: having and using are not the same thing.
The Wang treatise from The Tai Chi Classics asks how a weak old man can defeat younger attackers. Wang indicates that it cannot be due to strength and speed. How is this feat accomplished? Te.

No te

It is extremely common for beginners to demonstrate no understanding of te at all. The most obvious fault is forcing.
Rather than let the reeling silk undulation wave do the work, the student uses brute force. This may be fine in an external class, but in tai chi it is clumsy.

Natural power

Only an inexperienced tai chi person uses strength rather than jing. Jing is akin to the ocean tossing a boulder. The water uses no strength. It just undulates. The kinetic motion does all the work. This is te.

Martial arts uniform

A new starter in any martial art loathes wearing a new-looking suit because its new appearance echoes their own inexperience. They seek to make the outfit look worn-in and used.
If an instructor wore a new uniform, the uniform would look fine. It is not the uniform that is the issue, it is the individual.
An instructor carries themselves in a particular way - irrespective of attire - and a new starter cannot emulate this. Again, this is 'te'.

Cultivating virtues

The word 'virtue' can also refer to high standards of conduct/behaviour.
According to the book Rapt, psychology studies have identified 6 qualities that are very much worth cultivating: wisdom, courage, temperance (moderation, self-restraint), justice, humanity (love) and transcendence (go beyond limitations, to climb).
These virtues are associated with wellbeing, strength of character and good mental health. The aim is to become aware of positive virtues and deliberately work to make them habitual.
This actually ties in very nicely with Tao Te Ching and tai chi; since a prevalent Taoist theme is that only specific approaches/methods will be successful. The way of the Tao is not any old way.  

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Page created 18 March 1997
Last updated 16 June 2023